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Five Things That Are Weird and Surreal About Rodeo Houston

This, preceeded by mutton busting and followed by the likes of Usher. Does it actually make sense? Probably not.
This, preceeded by mutton busting and followed by the likes of Usher. Does it actually make sense? Probably not.
Photo by Nicholas Zalud

In the decades since it started, our annual rodeo has rolled along and become, quite frankly, a rather weird amalgamation of our country past, our cosmopolitan present, all things Texas with some solid love for giant American flags and shout-outs to the armed forces.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- aka Rodeo Houston, aka Houston's Answer to Mardi Gras, aka that thing that ties up traffic every year -- has been around since time immemorial (really 1931.) Back when it started Houston was still more of a wide spot in the road and it made sense to put together a setup to showoff your livestock raising abilities and cowboy skills.

Check out the slideshow, The People of Rodeo Houston 2014

We hang onto our roots -- or our supposed roots, even though most of us grew up in the suburbs and some of us aren't even from Texas -- and we pull out our cowboy boots and hats to go be part of the rodeo. At the same time Houston is a modern city so there's all this stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with the cowboy life and the rodeo way. But even as life in and around the city have changed, the rodeo hasn't let go of old traditions.

Why would they do that when you can pop in everything but the kitchen sink? Which is what they do. The results are often awesome, usually entertaining but also what we're pretty sure a surrealist's fantasy of a rodeo would look like. Here are five things that are weird:

5. The rodeo is about cowboys and cows and livestock and all that, but we get performers like Maroon 5 and Usher. Hey, this is not saying a word against having a diverse choice of performers or from any and all the country music acts that swing on through during the rodeo, but think about it outside the framework of the rodeo: You show up to see Maroon 5, but before you see Adam Levine crooning about never leaving bed you watch some of the best cowboys and cowgirls in the world compete in bronc riding, barrel racing and a whole bunch of other stuff you're not likely to see anywhere else outside the time and space of the Old West. Then there are a bunch of kids riding sheep. Then there are older kids wrestling with baby cows. Stop and think about it. Nowhere else in the world will you see all that and then settle in to watch Usher sing from a revolving stage. It just won't happen.

4. Everyone walks around the Astrodome corpse like it's not at all weird. Or dead. Or there. The voters of Houston in their infinite wisdom chose not to fund the bid to get tax payers to foot the bill to re-purpose the Astrodome. This Houston landmark has been out of use and in limbo for years, but then folks took it up a notch and blasted off the towers added on to make it wheelchair accessible back in the day, leaving the Dome with gaping doorways looking even more like a husk far removed from its former glory. Anyways, this doesn't seem to phase anybody at the rodeo. People ride the rides and head into Reliant to watch the shows and the Astrodome is just a large thing everyone walks around. It's weird that what was once "the eighth wonder of the world," complete with air conditioning and AstroTurf, is now a very large mostly dead thing that people don't even see when they're scanning the park looking for the vendor selling chicken-fried bacon.

 

3. The calf scramble. It's basically The Hunger Games with calves. Don't get us wrong, the calf scramble is a much loved tradition around here (has been since 1942) and if you grew up seeing 14 calves chased and tied up by 28 students it seems perfectly normal. But take this out of the frame of the rodeo and it's pretty damn brutal. An assortment of baby cows are gathered up, let loose and then chased by a bunch of kids who have to get a halter around a calf and haul the little guy back to the "winners square." The kids win money, but what do the calves win? Probably just the chance to be veal. And for all of this the calves are outnumbered two to one. Honestly, after seeing it enough this rodeo season, we started rooting for the calves to win. One day a baby cow will rise up and haul some unsuspecting student to the winners square. And we won't blame the calf one bit.

2. Everyone is a cowboy. Even if they've never seen a cow not on a plate. Seriously, Houston has got the Texas feel, of course, but most of the year we're a multicultural town with people who work in all kinds of fields that have nothing to do with the cowboy way and who come here from all over the country and world to do so. But come rodeo season, all that changes. Cavender's is flooded with customers eager to drop a couple hundred dollars on a pair of boots and then everyone shows up at the rodeo with the boots. They wear them with fancy dresses. They wear them tucked into jeans (the consciously city slicker look.) They wear them with the jeans covering the boot (the consciously country look.) They wear them with short shorts. They wear them with board shorts. Everyone says y'all and drinks Shiner and Lone Star. And if you took a poll we'd bet an easy 50 percent of these people are definitely not from Texas. They've never been near a horse outside the carousel kind. They don't know what a cow looks like before it becomes a steak. But once a year we're all cowboys y'all. It's a strange thing, but it happens.

1. Mutton Bustin'. Imagine being from some other country and watching a show where they tie young children to, let's say, young camels. You'd say that was barbaric, right? With mutton bustin' children are tied to mutton and then thrown off. Take off the rodeo goggles and think on that for a moment. We tie children, who must be between the ages of 5 to 6 years old, to animals who are not in any way prepared to be ridden by said children. Like, so much so that the mutton are bucking, writhing and wriggling and doing pretty much whatever it takes to get the what-in-the-hell-did-they-just-put-on-top-of-me thing off. And that thing the mutton are trying their best to buck off is your 5-year-old kid. Sure the kid could win you an iPad if he or she stays on long enough, but said kid is most likely going to get flung off and get a mouthful of Houston's extra-special rodeo dirt (code for animal feces and dirt all mixed up.) It's a strange and unsettling rodeo thing, and even if it's funny to watch, you know that anywhere else in the world this would be child abuse.

Luckily, we're in Houston and the kids potentially can get their hands on iPads, so it's cool. Kind of.


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